The lack of diversity in teaching assistants
Photo by Kyle West
By: Eden Wondmeneh
As a first-year student in social sciences, the bulk of my tutorial grade is determined by my participation in discussions. For someone who would rather be restricted to eating at Centro than be forced to speak in public, tutorials are not my ideal environment.
As the fall semester progressed, I noticed that some of these discussions supported learning while others were downright problematic. Speaking to other students in social sciences, specifically students of colour, it was clear that teaching assistants, who greatly influenced whether tutorial discussions were the former or the latter, were overwhelmingly white.
The lack of diversity in TAs is often juxtaposed with a somewhat diverse student group — where students of colour bond over the shared discomfort or hilarity of the awkwardness that settles across the room anytime a ‘hot topic’ like white privilege is brought up.
Discussions about race are often excluded from acceptable topics in an environment that claims to encourage academic discourse, especially when initiated by a person of colour: a fact that aided in my decision to stay relatively quiet in tutorials.
Regardless of their intentions, these TAs are in a position of power where they facilitate discussions about systems of oppression that they themselves benefit from and resultantly teach students through this narrow-privileged lens. If topics of race are not dismissed after a moment of awkward silence, they always seem condescending; what qualifies non-POC TAs to lead these discussions?
I have a friend whose TA explained how common sense differs between cultures using a blatantly racist analogy of African children never having seen a stove thus not knowing that it is unsafe to touch. When called out for their ignorance, the TA’s response was some variation of, “I’m not racist”.
The Teaching in an Accessible and Inclusive Community section of McMaster University’s 2013 TA guide shows that the diversity and inclusion issue in tutorial sessions is much worse than it appears. The university is aware of the power imbalances that are inherent to the limited diversity amongst TAs — they just aren’t doing anything about it.
Despite their ability to recognize that acknowledgment of systemic racism is not enough to let them off the hook, they boldly state that McMaster staff and faculty work “against often invisible systems of privilege and oppression,” without giving TAs any guidance in how to further this effort within their own tutorials. In fact, the guidebook makes it clear that it is naïve to believe that even a well-intentioned TA could use any tips provided to create an equitable space within their tutorials.
To be clear, I don’t think that TAs are intentionally leading their tutorials to isolate students of colour and validate the dominant privileged narrative that exists within our society. I do believe though that the hiring process for TAs is flawed, as it works directly against McMaster’s “fight against invisible systems of privilege and oppression”.
There should be a great number of Black TAs who are able to lead tutorials with a different perspective, engage with Black students and have important conversations about race when the course calls for it.
Aside from increasing the diversity amongst TAs, there should be mandatory anti-oppression workshops and training. It is unrealistic to hope that TAs will suddenly diversify, but it is not unrealistic to hope that current TAs have an understanding of their bias and are able to react to being called out productively — not through cries of, “I am not racist”.
For myself to feel comfortable to contribute freely within these tutorials, I need there to be measures in place for the inevitable awkwardness that ensues when race is discussed and a guarantee that Black children won't be used in racist examples.
We don't live within a vacuum. To create the “inclusive and accessible learning environment” that McMaster desires, TAs need to reflect this inclusivity and accessibility students are meant to find.